Worth a Second Look No. 1. Joseph Lane: An Anti-Statist Communist Manifesto. London: Joseph Lane, 1887

Worth a Second Look No. 1. Joseph Lane: An Anti-Statist Communist Manifesto. London: Joseph Lane, 1887

By the time this pamphlet was published around June 1887 Joseph Lane had played a major part in the growth of a new working-class militancy in London. This working-class culture was militant and vibrant and developed itself as a culture positioned in opposition to all forms of capitalism and state socialism. A public speaker rather than a writer, Lane flourished as a regular speaker at the outside pitches at Mile End Waste, Victoria Park and the one near Hoxton church. He also spoke at Hyde Park and other outdoor venues and, although he spoke at quite high-profile indoor meetings (the 1887 commemoration of the Paris Commune for instance), one senses it was at these free-flowing outdoor meetings that he was at his best. It was a rougher more challenging world there. At these outdoor meetings you weren’t speaking to those who already agreed with what you were saying, but more likely to those who thought you were stupid or just wanted to argue with you. At the very best they would only be casually interested or entertained by your words. Such an approach to spreading the word though stressed the efforts of Lane and others to bring together the working class and the casual and permanent poor in the struggle against capitalism. It was hard graft and one senses Lane was very good at it.

You can find an account of his career and the circumstances of his writing the Manifesto here[1] but there are a few points I’d like to add. I think it needs emphasizing that Lane was an unapologetic working-class militant. Over the eighteen years or so of his active political engagement he moved from support for piecemeal reforms to a belief in the necessity of wholescale structural change ushered in by force, leading to what was essentially anarchist communism. As early as the London conference of social revolutionaries and anarchists in July 1881[2] he argued for social revolution and against trade unions, suggesting that trade unions were merely part and parcel of the structure of capitalism and would turn out to be the enemy of the working class and poor. His work in the working-class communities of London suggested a constant urgency and commitment reflected in his almost obsessive need to get things done, often seeming to work himself to the point of exhaustion. We can see those characteristics in the working-class clubs he helped create and the countless meetings he set up in and around them. You sense the daily efforts he put in attempting to build momentum among the poor and the working class that would bring about the better world he believed in. There was no time to waste and little time to rest. Although he was by nature somewhat of a loner Lane worked closely with Frank Kitz, Ambrose Barker (a friend until Lane’s death) as well as Fred Slaughter (later Fred Charles). Through Kitz he met German anarchists like Johan Neve, with whom he was particularly close, sharing a similarity of approach in thinking and political work. At the time of writing the Anti-Statist Communist Manifesto Lane appears to have also been close to Belgian anarchist Victor Dave who offered edits on the galleys of this pamphlet.[3]

An Anti-Statist Communist Manifesto came about as a result of the long-standing argument within the Socialist League between those who favoured parliamentary action to bring about change and those who didn’t. Although this piece was a reaction to that particular discussion it was also the distillation of the many, many conversations and arguments that had filled Lane’s life up until this point in time. In his essential history of British anarchism “The Slow Burning Fuse” John Quail writes that Lane’s pamphlet could “fairly be claimed as the first English anarchist home grown pronouncement” (p87)[4] It is an attractive assertion but I think it may be a little more complicated than that.

Lane had published with others quite a number of broadsheets (single- or two-page position papers) before this pamphlet where we can see both the genesis and development of some of his ideas on display here.[5] The powerful July 1883 Manifesto to the Working Men of the World which he signs on behalf of the Homerton Socialist Club certainly reflects the unremitting class consciousness and opposition to oppression which feature throughout An Anti-Statist Communist Manifesto. It also reflects the milieu that Lane is working in. This Manifesto is signed by a variety of British groups (the Stratford Radical Club and the Labour Emancipation League were two he was intimately involved in) but also groups such as various foreign sections of the International Club (15 Poland Street), the French Communards and the German Club in St Stephens Mews. I tend to see An Anti-Statist Communist Manifesto as the result of talking with and listening to a whole variety of radicals. Ideas from Europe were as much a part of this pamphlet as ideas from his own experiences in Hackney, Hoxton and elsewhere. It was shaped by the halting conversations, joint actions and ideological and personal splits that characterized the native and exile radical community in London. Of course it was aimed initially at members of the Socialist League but was written not just for them but also at those were only now sensing the inequity of the world around them. It may have been a manifesto of belief, but it was also a call to action offering precise tactics to overcome the problems of the day that Lane and other working-class radicals were grappling with. An Anti-Statist Communist Manifesto is a balancing of the general and the particular all underpinned by a philosophy that takes no prisoners.

His pamphlet opens with a stark choice between Authority and Liberty that society now faces. As we would expect from Lane he asserts that there is no middle ground between the two that we can operate in. His suggestion that “All intermediary systems are powerless in equal degree, and can only occasion transient perturbations” (p2) underpins this pamphlet and Lane’s own political work. It is a stark dichotomy between all or nothing!! For Lane it was essential to oppose all forms of religion as religion is integral to the suppressing of liberty both in the nature of government that derives from it and its smothering effects on the development of individual conscience. It creates a “fiction over reality” (p3). Religion supports armies that maintain authoritarian governments and, foreshadowing Randolph Bourne[6], allows for war to become the health of the state. Only when religion is annihilated will “the people arise from their degradation, intellectual and moral.” (p4) In this transformed society there will be little room for politics or war.

As far as Lane is concerned socialism “is a mortal foe to all oppressors of whatsoever kind” (p5) claiming that “So long as a mystic vision of a divinity shall darken the world, it will be impossible for man to know that world.” (p5). Get rid of that and anything is possible. He declares that the revolutionary socialist is opposed to all kinds of government. He condemns those socialists who believe in a parliamentarianism that will inevitably create a state that will eventually lead to diplomacy, war and the centralization of power to defend it. Parliamentary socialists stand opposed to the real freedom of humanity. He believes in the power of social science arguing “that we revolutionary socialists desire to organize ourselves in such a manner as to render politics useless and the powers that be superfluous” (p 7). Any idea of reform is a Utopian trick. The revolutionary socialists are “communists as regards the economic development of human society—but free communists rather than state socialists.” (p 9) They are “the pioneers towards which all progress tends, namely, the free association of groups of workers….holding the land and capital in common”(p13-14) with “every member working according to his ability and receiving according to his needs” (p 14)

Lane also argues against “the institution of the family such as it exists nowadays “(p11). Revolutionary socialists are “Thoroughly convinced partisans of the free union of the sexes” (p11). Men and women should have the same rights in practical life and in their dreams and desires, while the proprietorial rights that are inherent in marriage must be abolished.

Revolutionary socialist ideas, he suggests are driven by the realization that “The study of history has taught us that the noblest conquests of man are written on a bloodstained book” (p12). To defeat the forces that are used against them in so many ways the working class must realize that their own force is “the only means of breaking asunder the iron chains that bind us” (p12). Lane argues against “reckless and useless struggles” (p12) but when the days of revolution come there can be no armistice. Linked to this inevitability of revolutionary violence is his belief in the critical importance of education to prepare for these revolutionary days. “Education open to all…will produce that intellectual equality without which material equality would be without value and without charm” Lane’s stress on education can be seen in the formation and organization of the various working-class associations he helped create. Lectures and discussions were an integral part of the activities of the Homerton Socialist Club and the Labour Emancipation League, creating a vibrant working-class radical culture that he hoped would be ready for the huge and radical destruction of capitalist society and its replacement by anti-statist communism

As readers today, we can see this pamphlet just as a historically important document in the development of British anarchism; somewhat rough and ready but with its heart in the right place. I would argue though that there is much more to it than that. Here is a working-class man attempting to explain his belief in anti-statist communism, to all intents and purposes anarchist communism. When he outlines what he believes the words come tumbling out as he lines up his thoughts and while they certainly lack the fluency of a Morris or a Kropotkin they exude a passion – a passion that has been nourished in the working-class streets and pubs of London. His ideas are reflections on what he knows and sees. We can forgive the awkwardness of expression as we realize that here is a man who tried to live by his words every day, in circumstances that many of his contemporaries in the movement would have struggled to function in.

This pamphlet also gives us a view into the political and social context that his ideas were part of and grew from. The second part of the pamphlet provides the reader with a list of the various established campaigns and activities that Lane came into contact with: Land Nationalization, Imperialism, Co-operation, Emigration, Individualism, Malthusianism, the Co-operative movement, etc. His own ideas were a mixture of a reaction to these ideas, as well as the countless activities such as rent strikes and anti-landlord propaganda that he was constantly involved in and that taught him so much about people and action. We know he was a reader of Benjamin Tucker’s newspaper Liberty and he had probably read the 1883 edition of God and the State published by Henry Seymour.[7] He was a regular reader of the anarchist communist newspaper Freedom and was well acquainted with the work of William Morris. Hence what we get in this pamphlet is a mixture of reading and practice, a measuring of ideas against reality and a suggestion of the constant dialectic between the two. Above all this pamphlet should remind us that ideas did not exist in isolation for Lane and other working-class anarchists. These ideas were constantly being tested by experience and were amended, developed and shaped as a result of those experiences.

We have then, in our hands the beliefs of a working-class activist and their relationship to the political and social world he inhabited. It reflects a stage on his journey of theory and practice that is worthy of our respect and admiration. We don’t have to agree with every word, but we can, at the very least, respect the journey taken by Lane and others like him as they struggled for a better world. It is worth some careful reading and if you haven’t read it you are in for a treat.

Publishing history of “An Anti-Statist Communist Manifesto”:

London: Joseph Lane, 1887
Sanday: Cienfuegos Press, 1978
Cambridge: Drowned Rat Publications in Association with Refract Publications, 1985
On line at https://libcom.org/library/an-anti-statist-communist-manifesto-joseph-lane


1, https://libcom.org/history/lane-joseph-1851-1920.
2, Attended by Kropotkin, Malatesta and over forty other anarchists and social revolutionists the conference took place in the back room of “The Fitzroy Arms”, Cardington Street, Hampstead Road between 14-19 July 1881. It adopted a position of support for propaganda of the deed.
3, IISH has a copy of the galleys of this pamphlet with handwritten suggestions from, they suggest, Victor Dave. Some suggested edits are to do with expression and style but there is a notable edit on the pamphlet’s discussion of religion – which did not find its way into the published version. [See https://hdl.handle.net/10622/ARCH01344.183-184]
4, John Quail. The Slow Burning Fuse.  London; Freedom Press, 2014
5, Others around this time included “The Starvation Army”, “The Emigration Fraud” and one calling for an anti-landlord campaign that imitated the strategy adopted by tenants in Ireland.
6, Randolph Bourne. Untimely Papers. New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1919
7, Michael Bakunin. God and the State. Tunbridge Wells : Science Library, 1883. He would also have probably read anarchist standards such as Elisee Reclus, Evolution and Revolution. London, International Publishing Co, 1885 and Peter Kropotkin, Appeal To The Young (translated By H.M. Hyndman) Modern Press, London 1885 – first serialized in the paper Justice 22nd August-4th October 1884.